Classical music

Bristol’s new concert hall is extremely fine

Bristol has a new concert hall, and it’s rather good. The transformation of the old Colston Hall into the Bristol Beacon has been reported as if it was simply a matter of upgrading and renaming. There were probably sound reasons for doing so, but in fact (and despite protests from the Twentieth Century Society) the postwar auditorium has been demolished outright and replaced with a wholly new orchestral hall designed on the best current principles: shoebox-shaped, with much use of wood and textured brick. Butterworth sears his melodies on to the eardrums. Isn’t it weird we still think of the Edwardians as inhibited? Acoustically, it’s extremely fine – not a

Meet the man who says improvisation is the key to Mozart

In August 1993, the pianist Robert Levin sat down in Walthamstow Assembly Rooms with the conductor Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) to record the complete piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was big – the bicentenary celebrations of 1991 had made a global impact. And Hogwood and the AAM were big too. After their groundbreaking period-instrument Mozart symphony cycle a decade earlier, the 27 piano concertos seemed like a wholly achievable ambition. What could go wrong? ‘For Mozart’s contemporaries, what surpassed even his virtuosity was his ability to improvise’ Only, as it turned out, the entire classical record industry. The project was meant to take

Yunchan Lim’s Chopin isn’t as good as his Liszt or Rach

Grade: B- In 2022 the South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim became, at 18, the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn competition, displaying a virtuosity that stunned the judges. You could see conductor Marin Alsop’s astonishment as he bounded through the finale of Rach 3, combining accuracy and swirling fantasy at daredevil speed. It’s been viewed nearly 15 million times on YouTube. In truth, though, he’d have had to screw up badly not to win, because he’d already dispatched Liszt’s fiendish Transcendental Études with perfect articulation and mercurial wit; in places he out-dazzled even the current master of this repertoire, Daniil Trifonov. Decca snapped him up and here’s his first studio

Across Britain punters are lapping up ultra-trad opera – the Arts Council will be disgusted

Another week at the opera, another evening with an elitist and ethically dubious art form. I love it; you love it; but the authors of the Arts Council’s recent report on opera in England are less enamoured. One issue they identified was that ‘the stories which opera and music theatre tells are failing to connect fully with contemporary society’. Possibly the memo never reached the promoters of Ellen Kent’s spring tour, which since January has visited 40-odd venues not typically served by major opera companies, and has done so without public subsidy. You might imagine that the only commercial outfit to make live opera pay in Wolverhampton, Ipswich and Sunderland

The mutilation of Radio 3

On Saturday 12 December 1964, Harold Wilson addressed his first Labour party conference as prime minister, George Harrison was photographed with his new girlfriend in the Bahamas, Pope Paul VI told Catholics they could drink alcohol ‘in moderation’ before Midnight Mass and, according to the Mirror, ‘two strip-tease girls fought in the nude in their dressing room after finishing their fan dance at a night club’. The station has become little more than a Spotify playlist interrupted by the disc-jockey burbling It was also the day that Record Review arrived in its Saturday morning slot on the BBC’s Third Programme, now Radio 3. And there it remained. During the Three-Day

We have lost an unforgettable teacher and one of Britain’s great critics

Tanner, the critic RICHARD BRATBY Michael Tanner (1935-2024), who died earlier this month, had such a vital mind and stood so far above the common run of music critics that it’s hard to believe he’s gone. For a philosopher to concern themself with the inner game of opera is not unknown (think of Friedrich Nietzsche and Roger Scruton). To do it as perceptively and as readably as Tanner is rarer. For two decades, starting in  1996, his weekly Spectator opera column offered as thorough and as stimulating an education in musical aesthetics as one could hope to receive; intellectual red meat served with forensic clarity and a mischievous, subversive smile.

Baffling and vile: ETO’s Manon Lescaut reviewed

In 1937, John Barbirolli took six pieces by Henry Purcell and arranged them for an orchestra of strings, horns and woodwinds. Nothing unusual about that: arranging baroque music for modern symphony orchestras was what famous conductors used to do. Beecham and Hamilton Harty re-upholstered Handel. Mahler did something similar with Bach, then directed the result from a grand piano, and wouldn’t you give anything to have heard him? All good clean fun in those innocent days before the advent of historically informed performance. ‘Can you tell me what was happening?’ asked a woman on the way out It’s unusual to hear these things revived now, and curiouser still when the

The greatest British symphonist you’ve never heard of

Grade: A Rejoice! A glorious symphonic cycle by a British composer has been issued as a set for the first time. George Lloyd (1913-98) was treated with lofty condescension by the musical establishment because his twelve symphonies contain barely a single dissonance. They’re sprinkled with jaunty tunes that have the feel of an Ealing Comedy – heresy! Also, it didn’t help that for decades Lloyd made his living as a mushroom farmer in the West Country. But he was no amateur: he could write perfect fugues as a teenager and by his early twenties had a fine opera under his belt. Then in 1942, the ship on which he was

Wise, passionate and soul-stirringly withering: remembering the great Michael Tanner (1935-2024)

Michael Tanner, who died yesterday at the age of 88, lived two parallel lives. To many Spectator readers, he was the magazine’s peerless opera critic: wise, passionate, thrillingly disputatious, intensely funny, extremely generous with the Semtex. Essential reading. He wrote The Spectator’s weekly opera column from 1996 to 2014 and continued to review – and raze to the ground where necessary – concerts, books, albums and opera, whatever we flung at him, right up until 2022.  To countless others, however, he was one of the great philosophical scholars. A celebrated authority on Nietzsche, he was the author of the introductions to the Penguin editions of The Birth of Tragedy (1993) – which he also edited –

Death of a choir

Always make your redundancy announcement when the people at the receiving end of it are on a high. This seems to be the favoured method of today’s managing executives, who perhaps imagine that adrenalin will somehow anaesthetise the blow of getting the sack. For the Cambridge student choir St John’s Voices, the news of its imminent disbanding and the redundancy of its director Graham Walker came just two minutes after the light was switched off at the end of a three-day recording session of Russian choral masterpieces last week. Does egalitarianism have to be promoted at the expense of up-and-running excellence? In a two-paragraph round-robin email to the choir that

An engrossing new two-hander about Benjamin Britten

Ben and Imo are composer Benjamin Britten and his musical assistant, Imogen Holst. But those cosy pet names tell us where we stand – or at least, where we think we do. The illusion of being inside an artistic clique is at the heart of Mark Ravenhill’s new two-hander, which began life as a BBC radio drama and which he has now opened out into a two-act play about the pair. Alan Bennett did a Britten play a few years back but Ravenhill is sharper, and as directed by Erica Whyman, Ben and Imo just about supports its own length. His Benjamin Britten is bravura – neck stretching forward, then

What were we all doing here? My 600-mile trip to hear an organ play a D natural

In the year 2000, in a small east German town, work began on the construction of an organ that had one purpose: to perform John Cage’s ORGAN2/ASLSP (1987) for precisely 639 years. The late avant-garde composer’s only instruction for the piece was to play the piece ‘as slowly as possible’. And so in 2001 – the instrument finally ready – the world’s longest organ recital began in St Burchardi church, Halberstadt, with a rest lasting 17 months before the first chord commenced droning in 2003. It consisted of two G sharps and a B. Two weeks ago, I – along with several hundred others – made the pilgrimage to the

Damian Thompson

A thrilling new recording of Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie

Grade: A Pierre Boulez once called Messiaen’s giant Turangalila-Symphonie ‘brothel music’. That was mean-spirited but you knew what he meant: a typical performance comes in at just under 80 minutes, much of it consisting of the B-movie sound of an ondes Martenot wailing over lush harmonies. There’s a constant zig-zag of polyrhythms, plus great towers of brass that represent ‘the heavy, terrifying brutality of old Mexican monuments’ – but, yes, it can hang around like cheap scent. But not in this recording by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under its music director Gustavo Gimeno, who lingers only where he has to. The effect is not hurried but bouncy and clean-limbed, allowing

Simply not as good as Mozart’s: RCM’s Don Giovanni Tenorio reviewed

In Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, Don Giovanni finds himself in hell, chatting to the sentient Statue that dragged him to his doom. ‘It sounds rather flat without my trombones,’ admits the Statue, conceding that once you remove the genius of Mozart from the mix, you’re left with a trite (if titillating) morality tale. You could draw the same conclusion from the opera Don Giovanni Tenorio, by Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1818), and if you haven’t heard of him you might wonder why not. Institutional racism? Patriarchal hegemony? Not this time. Gazzaniga was a Neapolitan composer of perfectly adequate operas that simply aren’t as good as Mozart’s. Anyway, Don Giovanni Tenorio made

Modest means, but striking results: Opera North’s La rondine reviewed

Opera North is ending its autumn season with a big-hearted production of a lopsided opera. There’s much to love about Puccini’s La rondine, and much to drive you up the wall. This bittersweet love story about an older woman and a younger man, set in Paris and Nice and channelling the operetta sweetness and sparkle of Puccini’s great friend Lehar, ought to sweep you off your feet. Instead, it tempts critics into that most shameless form of condescension, the armchair rewrite. Giacomo, old chap, isn’t five minutes into Act One a bit soon to be introducing your big hit aria? We’re halfway through Act Two: shouldn’t the lovers be together

Can everyone please shut up about Maria Callas?

One thing that exasperated me intensely during my many years as an opera critic was the assumption that I must be a passionate admirer of Maria Callas. She is the only prima donna who most people have heard of, and her supreme status has long been taken for granted, to the point at which the sound of her voice, as well as her personal story, have fomented a myth, a legend, an icon, and made any rational judgment almost impossible. She is Callas, La Divina, the embodiment of opera: one can only fall down and worship. The Callas bibliography runs, according to the British Library, to 136 books In a

The miracle of watching a great string quartet perform

Joseph Haydn, it’s generally agreed, invented the string quartet. And having done so, he re-invented it: again and again. Take his quartet Op. 20, No. 2, of 1772 – the first item in the Takacs Quartet’s recital last week at the Wigmore Hall. The cello propels itself forward and upward, then starts to warble like a bird on the wing. The viola sketches in a rudimentary bass line; the second violin – higher than the cello on paper, but actually playing at a lower pitch – shadows the melody in its flight. The first violin? Nothing: the leader (or so you might imagine) of the group is entirely silent until

A Radio 3 doc that contains some of the best insults I’ve ever heard

A recent Sunday Feature on Radio 3 contained some of the best insults I have ever heard. Contributors to the programme on the early music revolution were discussing the backlash they experienced in the 1970s while reviving period-style instruments and techniques. Soprano Dame Emma Kirkby remembered one critic complaining that listening to her performance was ‘as about as interesting as eating an entire meal of plain yoghurt’. Another critic, writing in Gramophone, pronounced the strings of the new ensembles ‘as beautiful as period dentistry’. Those strings were mostly made of animal guts. There was, as one of the musicians interviewed recalled, ‘a DIY atmosphere’ to the movement, which developed alongside

Every crumb of Kurtag’s music is a feast: Endgame, at the Proms, reviewed

The fun starts early in Beckett’s Endgame. Within minutes of opening his mouth, blind bully Hamm decides to starve his servant. ‘I’ll give you just enough to keep you from dying,’ he tells Clov. One biscuit and a half. Which feels positively lavish compared with what composer Gyorgy Kurtag feeds us musically in the first 20 minutes of his operatic adaptation (receiving its British première at the Proms). Crumbs, we get. One single lonely tone, from one instrument, every few seconds, all so spaced out that it almost sounded like the orchestra was on tiptoe, glutes clenched, attempting a heist perhaps, trying to half-inch some notes from somewhere. Every crumb

A euphoric meat-and-two-veg programme: Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich/Paavo Jarvi, at the Proms, reviewed

We used to call it a ‘meat and two veg’ programme, back in my concert planning days: the reliable set menu of an overture, a concerto and a symphony. It was an unfortunate term. No artistic planner likes to feel that they’re playing it safe, still less (and sources report that this goes double at the BBC) that they’re giving the public what they want. Traditional formats, familiar warhorses, dead white males: yawn! Then Paavo Jarvi and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich rock up at the Proms with a Beethoven overture, a Tchaikovsky concerto and Dvorak’s New World symphony and what do you know? The Royal Albert Hall was packed.  We got